How to start a book in 4 steps – bestselling author Natasha Lester shares her process

Natasha Lester is the bestselling author of five historical novels, including The Paris Secret, The French Photographer, The Paris Seamstress, Her Mother's Secret and A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald.  She's also one of our wonderful presenters here at the Australian Writers' Centre with her online courses 2 Hours to Scrivener Power and Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers.

We often stress how important it is to finish your manuscript, but you also have to start somewhere too! If you're a follower of Natasha's blog, you'll know that starting a new novel is one of her least favourite parts of writing. So, she thought she’d share her tried and tested four-step approach to beginning a new book. Over to you, Natasha!

  1. The scrappy idea

When I start writing a book, I have only the vaguest notion of what the book is about. In fact, that’s probably exaggerating. I have the vaguest idea of what a couple of parts of the book might be about, but that’s it.

When I started The Paris Secret, for instance, I knew who some of the key characters were. I knew a little of their background. I knew I needed several different time frames but I didn’t know how those time frames would be connected.That’s basically all I started with. It’s a very shaky foundation upon which to write a book, but that’s how every other book I’ve written has started. So I know by now that the best thing to do is to plunge in.

  1. The first scene

For some reason, I always seem to have the first scene of my books quite well-formed in my head. This is a bonus. It means that the first couple of days when I sit down to write, things flow relatively smoothly.

The thing with my writing process is – one scene follows another. If I can get one scene down, then that will usually give me an idea for the next scene. So, the next day I’ll sit down to write that. And the next day, the same thing will happen.

It is absolutely like that famous E.L. Doctorow quote:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

  1. Asking myself questions

I also spend a bit of time sitting down with a notebook, jotting down questions like: “What is the link between these two characters?” And, “Why does she agree to do that?” Or, “What’s her motivation for helping him?”

I have no idea of the answers to those questions when I first jot them down. But, the process of jotting them down alerts my mind to the fact that they have to be answered. It’s so important to understand the motivations of your characters and this knowledge bleeds into every scene that you write.

Whenever I think of anything that’s close to answering any of my questions, I scribble it down and eventually, all the questions get answered.

  1. The 15,000-20,000-word outline

Obviously, all of this means I’m not really a planner. But, over the last couple of books, I’ve tried to develop a rough outline. I definitely don’t do this when I first sit down to write because the task would utterly defeat me and then I wouldn’t have the confidence to write the book.

Instead, I write around 15,000-20,000 words. I try to get that done over a few weeks at the end of the year when the kids are still at school. Once school summer holidays start, peaceful writing time becomes a fond memory! 

Then I won’t really look at the book for a few weeks over the holidays. But during that time, the story will take shape in my head, based on the 15,000-20,000 words I’ve written. Then, after I'm done percolating, I’ll jot down a very loose outline based on all the ideas I’ve had. I definitely won’t know everything. But I’ll know enough to keep going until that moment, about halfway through, where the story just flows.

So, that’s it! Simple right?! That’s all I have to do to start writing a new book. And I also have to trust, a lot, that because it’s all worked out for the last five books, it will all work out again for the next one. Wish me luck! 

If you’re a writer, how does your starting out process work? And if you’re a reader, is this how you imagined a writer might tackle a new book?

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